When a Chief Minister announces, "Agar apradh karenge to thok diye jayenge', the state police, without doubt, becomes trigger-happy.
The killing of 'hardened' criminals in Uttar Pradesh is now listed as a major achievement of the government and even as opposition parties berate the Yogi Adityanath government for the spate of killings that happen in the name of encounters, the government thinks otherwise.
The killing of Pushpendra Yadav, 28, in Jhansi on Sunday, is an example of the state's 'encounter politics'.
While the police maintain that Pushpendra was killed in an encounter, his family insists that he was killed because he refused to bribe a police office. Pushpendra ran a sand business and the police have named him as a 'mining mafia'.
Yogi Adityanath, when he came to power in 2017, resolved to improve the law and order situation. His 'thok do' (shoot them) policy led to a spate of encounters.
Known as a 'strong man who tolerates no nonsense' in Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath proudly informed journalists, earlier this year, that more than 3,000 encounters had taken place in his regime in which 69 criminals were gunned down, 838 sustained injuries and 7,043 were arrested.
As many as 11,981 criminals got their bails cancelled and surrendered in court as the government completed its two years in office.
The UP Police now refuse to give updated figures in the matter and the Chief Minister insists that crime is now under control.
The encounter policy is being stretched to limits that can be even termed as ridiculous.
For instance, in Sambhal in October last year, during an encounter, policemen shouted 'thain thain' to scare off criminals when their revolver got jammed. A video recording of this 'encounter' went viral on the social media.
Yogi Adityanath's encounter policy, however, has also been questioned.
Last year, a news portal published a ground report in which it claimed that 14 encounters in western UP were found to be 'pre-planned'.
"Out of the 14 cases of police encounter killings that the portal investigated in four districts of western Uttar Pradesh, 11 had the same pattern.
"The victims were in the age group of 17 to 40. They were all under-trials in a number of cases. Just before each encounter, the police received a tip off about their location. They were either on a bike or a car. As soon as the police tried to stop them on the road, they started firing. In retaliatory fire, the accused received bullet injuries and were declared dead on arrival at the hospital," the report said.
Taking cognizance of the report, the Office of the High Commissioner for United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR) sent a letter expressing its concern over 'these extra-judicial killings'.
But Yogi Adityanath remained unfazed.
"The fact remains that criminals have gone into hiding or are in jail. People are feeling safe and secure. In dealing with the law and order, we have not even spared our own party workers if they have been involved. Strict action is taken in cases of crime. Those who are criticizing us should look back at the SP and BSP regimes when extortion, murder, rape was the order of the day," he said.
Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav though said: "Never before had the police been so uncontrolled. The Chief Minister's 'thok do' policy has given the licence to kill to cops."
Giving an example, the SP leader said, "In Azamgarh, one Jaihind Yadav was killed two years ago. He was picked up from home and a few hours later, the family came to know that he was killed in police encounter. The police claimed that Jaihind fired at them and was killed in retaliatory firing."
DGP O.P. Singh said, "We have also lost many members of the force. We are probing every case of fake encounter. The cops are punished if they do anything illegal. Encounters take place only when the criminal fires at the cops. You cannot expect the cops to take the bullet lying down."
Rajiv Yadav, a human rights activist and a member of the NGO Rihai Manch, which took up cases of human rights violations with the NHRC, says "There are some trigger-happy police officials in the state who specialize in encounters. In many cases, the cops tie up a victim's knees with a sac and fire from close range. This is called a half-encounter," he says, adding that the cops have resorted to them after getting flak over extra-judicial killings.
A senior police official said that the district police chiefs had set encounter targets for the police stations under their command and the stations in-charge did their best to achieve the targets.
The station house officers were given oral directives and when targets are set, fake encounters are bound to happen.
There were reports that the police went out of the way in some cases to help the jailed criminals get bail and then got them killed in encounters. One such case was reported from Meerut.
Recently, a senior cop was caught on tape advising a history-sheeter on how to avoid being gunned down in the police encounter.
In the audiotape, which went viral on the social media networking sites, the station house officer identified as Sunil Singh was heard telling Lekhraj Singh Yadav, a dreaded criminal and history-sheeter, who faced 60 cases, including those of murder and kidnapping, to speak to two local BJP leaders to 'prevent' his possible encounter.
The matter is still being probed.
In another incident in February last year, a cop had allegedly shot and seriously wounded two youths in Noida over personal enmity and claimed that they were criminals and were injured during an armed encounter. The sub-inspector was arrested and sent to jail while three other police personnel were also suspended.
Former Uttar Pradesh IPS officer S.R. Darapuri said that chance encounters were rare. "The police misuse the Right to Self-defence and majority of the encounter victims are poor." He further said that NHRC does not have the power to punish cops and this also emboldens the men in khaki.
Senior Congress leader Surendra Rajput said, "Yogi Adityanth should stop measuring the law and order graph with the number of encounters. Giving the license to kill is a dangerous trend in a civil society and the state government should rise above politics on this issue."